Stories from the Northern Country
- How a “peripheral question” shattered one church
A vision in Zachariah 6: 8 describes chariots pulled by black horses, going to “the Northern Country”. Some enthusiastic Finns have considered this to be a prophecy about
Argumentation and disagreement happens on two levels or two questions. First is the most obvious: “What is right/true in this matter?” This is usually the one we, as theologians are most comfortable with. However, pragmatically the “meta-level” question which both precedes and follows this is often more important. That is the question of importance, i.e. “How crucial it is to reach the truth in this matter?”
When the debate starts, it usually operates purely on the first level, the level of validity/falsity. However, if and when the debate is prolonged and especially if it “popularized”, i.e. ceases to be merely a professional theologians’ problem and becomes a hot potato for larger crowd, the second question, the meta-level question arises. It may be because some people experience a certain “battle fatigue” – even for matters they themselves are not demanded to ponder. It may be because the question receives much attention in the media – religious or secular. And, let’s face it: some people are either deliberately or unintentionally players: they know they cannot win an open field battle in the matter, so they try to avoid straightforward argumentation and go on working behind the scenes.
But let’s not be too cynical. Some people just do not feel comfortable with people actually disagreeing. As a child, I always hated when my dad and my uncle started discussing politics – they would not yell, but still raised their voices, used strong expressions and were generally quite intense. I felt very uncomfortable because I thought they were fighting. Only later on I’ve come to realize that they were probably having the time of their life! As pastors and teachers, this should be remembered too. Some people just don’t like debating and become anxious and weary if they face the harsh reality of heterodox world too often. Sometimes a shepherd should smack the wolves where little lambs can not see how ugly it can get.
A question now debated, the ordination of women, could be and has been rhetorically described as an insignificant detail in an already peripheral question about ministry and ordination. Rhetoric used would follow a strongly functionalistic line of thought. The Sweet Gospel would, of course, be “in the middle”. The means of grace – of course separated from the gospel itself – would then be on the next ring, maybe preceded by “The Bible”. Then, as a functionalistic necessity, God would have to establish some kind of organisation to spread the news, some sort of a divine pr-agency. We could call this “the Church”. The church, in this rhetorical framework, would of course be invisible by its nature, but just for practical reasons, it would have some actual visible activities - divine service, for example. In this service, it would be convenient to have some people specifically appointed to lead things, unless everything would become confused. These people we call pastors. Now – through this rhetoric, the whole question about ministry is really, really low in the food-chain of theological topics. And even more insignificant it gets when one asks whether women could be pastors too or not.
Needless to say, this sort of a description doesn’t really grasp what the Office of the Holy Ministry really is. Luke is one of the many passages which opens a wholly new perspective: whoever hears you, hears me, says our Lord! How then could it be insignificant and peripheral who gets to represent the Lord himself?
Martin Luther, in his oft-quoted comparison described the doctrine as a golden ring. If you take out a piece – no matter how small – the ring is broken and is not ring anymore. I myself have compared doctrine to jello (not as refined a comparison, I admit). If you prod one corner, the whole jello jiggles. And yet another comparison, this one chiefly for the deaconesses: a ladder in a stocking. Once it starts, you can’t stop it.
The point is both is the same: the doctrine is a whole. You cannot tamper with one part of it and expect other parts to remain untouched. The question about women’s ordination is not just a question about ordination, it is also a part of a much larger question about human anthropology and sexuality. What does it mean to be created as man and woman? But the question is actually even more complex, since God’s Word links the human sexuality to both trinity, ecclesiology and even soteriology. The kehphalee-structure (head) used used to both describe a relation between male and female, but also intratrinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son (1. Cor. 11:3). The same kephale-imagery is also used to portray the saving work of Christ and the bond between him and his bride the church. “But as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their husbands in everything.“(Eph. 5: 23, 24)
Now, if a Church rejects the Biblical view about the male-female –relation, it cannot retain the right understanding about trinity, ecclesiology or soteriology. The deliberate mistake made in one will lead into problems with the others.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland accepted women’s ordination in 1986, and the first priestesses were ordained two years later. When the fateful decision was made, opponents prophesied that the acceptance of homosexuality would be next. Majority of proponents jeered at such ludicrous speculations. “That will never happen, and these two things are by no means connected to each other!” was the common response. Now, as ELCF celebrates 20 years of female pastors, it can be clearly seen that the prophecy was indeed correct. Special gay-oriented “Rainbow masses” are held in many major cities. Even though the Church has not made official decision about the matter yet, many pastors bless same-sex relationships. The committee appointed to discuss the possibilities of same-sex marriages has used a truck-load of money and three years to ponder a question which should be quite clear in the first place!
Early 80’s saw a heated debate about the issue of women’s ordination in our church. One of the stupidest arguments for the novelty was that when accepted, women’s ordination would bring the people back to church and lead the ELCF into new prosperity and spiritual revival. Some actually believed that. However, the reality has shown dramatically decreasing church attendance and increasing outflow for the last two decades.
The introduction of heresy is usually progressive and starts with toleration. First, the novelty asks only to be allowed as a minority. As it gradually increases in popularity, it asks to be recognized as an equal alternative to the old belief. Mere asking changes into demands, and soon what started as a minority becomes a majority which, nevertheless still graciously allows some room for the old-fashioned orthodox. Finally, the heterodoxy takes over and the original, orthodox doctrine is declared heresy.
It is like a cuckoo laying its eggs in a host’s nest. When the little hatchling cuckoo grows, it steals the food meant for the legitimate nestlings. The nest will eventually become crowded and the smaller nestlings will be rolled over board. Orthodoxy and heterodoxy can not live side by side indefinitely. As long as orthodox arguments remain, they will pose a threat to the heterodox, no matter how strong a majority.
The ELCF’s decision of ordaining women was accompanied by a pious but problematic clausal stating that those not accepting the new resolution would still have room in the church and possibility to serve an pursue a career in holy office. The following twenty years, however, have proved that this can not be. The heterodox church simply can not bear to contain orthodox theologians. Therefore the last two years have been breathtakingly terrible in the ELCF. Pastors are publicly insulted, defrocked and sued into secular courts for simply holding the stance which was clearly allowed in the clausal of 1986 decision.
The passion play my friend went to see celebrated 20th year of women pastors by portraying Mary of Magdalene as the true apostle of Christ and the teacher of the early church. Secular authorities are asked to clarify whether it is legal or not for individual congregations to financially support overseas mission societies not adhering to the women’s ordination. Not to mention the whole mess with the baptisms described earlier in this blog.
The question which has been claimed to be a minor, peripheral question has become articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae – the doctrine on which the church either stands or falls. For the proponents, it seems, this novelty is more important than the unity and catholicity of the church. The church is splitting in its seams, losing both religious and secular credibility and jettisoning some of its best theologians, but all this is deemed bearable just so that the opposition could finally be silenced.
As a member of a church which has been ravaged by this “heresy of our time”, I want to make this thing absolutely clear: women’s ordination is not a peripheral question. It can not be handled as an isolated, minor detail. And if accepted, it is pure pious fantasy to think that the two mutually exclusive doctrines about creation and office could live in a peaceful co-existence. Indeed, it would be extremely naïve for anyone to think that LCMS or any of its partner-churches would be different from all the other church bodies in this sense.
A closing disclaimer note is in order. I made friends with some ladies during my years in University who have now either been ordained or are thinking about it. I see no reason for despising them, and actually we still have quite amiable relations. Opposing women’s ordination does not mean you must hate the ones proposing it. I like to think these friends of mine as victims of our Zeitgeist. When everyone around you is yelling that women’s ordination is “meet, right and salutary” it is no wonder that young people believe that. It takes a lot to end up going against the grain. It is purely God’s grace that I fell into right kind of company (or "bad company", depends on who you ask. I could have made a good career in ELCF, I'm sure - was it not for this issue.) and found faithful teachers who explained what the whole thing is about. I started my studies as a mild proponent of the women’s ordination and concluded them as staunch opponent. Maybe it could have been otherwise, God knows. Nevertheless, personal humility or loveable character mustn’t be excuses for closing our eyes from the theological reality. As theologians, we do not have that luxury.